Why Do Cars Kill Kids?

By Cary Estes

sp2010_childcarThe seat belt may well be the single greatest safety invention in motor-vehicle history. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that seat belts save more than 10,000 lives per year in the United States. Yet these same devices can pose significant dangers to small children. So can air bags. In fact, outside of some recent innovations in minivans and SUVs, most motor vehicles are not designed with child safety in mind.

The reason is simple: “Kids don’t buy sports cars and work trucks,” explains Jeffrey Foster, M.P.H., associate director of UAB’s Southern Consortium for Injury Biomechanics (SCIB), the biomechanics research arm of the UAB Injury Control Research Center (ICRC). “Cars are sold to adults. Some are sold to adults with kids. But the main issue is going to be protecting the driver.”

A seat belt that fits an adult safely actually can injure a child in a crash, Foster continues. And air bags that successfully prevent an adult from smashing into the dashboard can be fatal when they inflate in the face of a child.

“Without question we have safer cars than we’ve had in the past,” says Russ Fine, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., the founding director of the ICRC and SCIB. “However, children have very different kinds of bodies and need different protection. The center of gravity in an adult is in a very different anatomic area than in a child. For a kid it’s very high in the breastbone of the chest; for a toddler it’s in their head.”

Part of the problem is the lack of data about the injuries children can suffer in motor-vehicle crashes, something the SCIB is attempting to rectify through projects such as the Digital Child, a computerized, child-sized crash-test dummy.

Foster says the industry is becoming more concerned about child safety, and efforts are under way to improve the situation. Among the items being developed are improved intelligent-car designs that better determine the weight of a person in any seat and automatically adjust safety features accordingly.

Still, most of those innovations remain years away from becoming reality, partly because of a lack of information. “That’s one of the reasons why in the Southern Consortium, there is a terrific amount of emphasis now on trying to understand exactly what happens to children during a crash,” Fine says. “Only then can we get at design issues that will compensate for the differences and protect child passengers.”


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